The “horror” movie has been around for a very long time and I have no intentions of giving a lesson on the history of the genre. There are some excellent books on the subject. This article is about those watershed moments that have in some way shaped the things we watch and those things that frighten us – that moment when we say “damn that was different.” Every generation has its films that stand out. In some cases it is something completely new and in other cases it is a re-treatment of an old idea made even better. At 45, I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy a great number of films before current advancements in special effects and the incredible regurgitation of ideas rendered those films less than scary.
These watershed moments, however, are not about a particular taste in a horror sub-genre (slasher or monster), not about the level of special effects, and not necessarily a list of the “best” horror films. Instead it’s about movies who presented a new idea, or took something we never thought about and made it frightening, or explored a previous idea and nailed it. Some of these films came from the major studios, but a surprising number were Indie films – a testament to my belief that scary isn’t all about special effects, A actors, and big budgets.
So come with me for a while and let’s explore some of those watershed moments in horror and look at their long standing impact on either the industry…or the things that make us shiver.
1. They worship Satan
Rosemary’s Baby was released in 1968 (production cost 3.2 million/Sales 34 million). Now devil worship was not a new concept…I think the Spanish Inquisition dealt with the topic. But in the movie industry this was the moment where the audience realized that anyone could be susceptible to the practices of Satan’s minions. The films popularity led to a string of films based on the Satan cult. Films like The Devil’s Rain and Race With the Devil and even The Omen were all just versions of the concept. One might argue that the film “The Last Exorcism” is really just a combination of this moment and the one that follows.
2. She’s possessed
The Exorcist was released in 1973 ( production cost 12 million/Sales 402 million) and is responsible for more “remakes” then probably any other film (Halloween might be the exception). It’s one thing to fight off a group of cultist, but what is one to do when a loved one is possessed…involuntarily. We absolutely love this concept and the slew of films dealing with the idea are endless.
3. There are worse things than ghosts
People die and then their ghosts comes back to haunt. Not a new idea at all. Authors were using this scheme as far back as the Gothic horror books. But…what if people die….and come back as flesh eating zombies. Romero’s classic, Night of the Living Dead (production costs 114K/sales 30 million) was not the first time movie goers saw a zombie but just about every zombie since then follows some of the “rules” he developed in his low budget black and white film.
4. People are crazy
Alfred Hitchcock took a pretty big chance when he choose to produce and direct Psycho. And it was a damn good movie at the time. Perhaps one might even say it was the watershed moment, but I have to go somewhere else….Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (production costs 87K/Sales 30 million) The Last House is that moment we realized just how crazy people are. I think the key difference between the two is that Psycho dealt with a psycho who had obviously lost his grip on reality. In the original LHL we are dealing with sociopaths and that is far scary because we can run into these folks just about anywhere. Over the past four decades there has been no shortage of sociopathic rapists prowling the movie screens- skip the remake as that’s more a vigilante film than the original intended.
5. People are really crazy
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (production costs 140K/Sales 26 million) moved the genre from the “oh they’re a crazy satanical cult” to…they are just out of their freaking minds. What is unique about this film is that first it claimed to be based on “real events,” -today we call this “found footage”- second we weren’t dealing with just one crazy dude, but an entire family and third the level of torture and dismemberment was just epic. I think it opened the door for later films like The Hills Have Eyes and House of 1,000 corpses, Hostle and even elements of Saw. It is hard to say but the recent film The Strangers either goes here or back in number four or maybe a little of both.
6. This neighborhood is worse than Dracula’s castle
The genre until 1978 followed a pretty standard model. If you went looking for trouble you usually found it. Road trips to Texas, stranger’s apartment buildings, remote hotels were all a recipe for disaster. Being home in you suburban neighborhood with the police a quick call away kept you pretty safe…until Halloween (production cost 325K/Sales 70 million). Here we are introduced to the silent predator with the big knife who’s walking through our neighborhood and standing in our house. One cannot even begin to list the movies this low budget film inspired…or how we feel about William Shatner masks and butcher knives.
7. I’ll stick to the pool
I love to swim and up until the third grade I loved the ocean. Then some jack ass had to ruin it for the entire world. Jaws (production costs 12 million/sales 471 million) killed the beach for more people than the Creature from the Black Lagoon ever could. It didn’t matter that the shark is killed at the end because it reminded us that the ocean is where sharks live. As an added extra this film inspired other bodies of water we should be afraid of like lakes (Croc) and rivers (Anaconda). Suddenly everything that swims had the potential to deliver a violent death. Now I won’t take anything away from The Birds but I seldom worry about birds (unless I just washed the jeep which ain’t often) but in my pool at night I often think about the possibility of a shark attack…regardless of the absurdity.
8. Cheap is the new scary
Okay I didn’t think the Blair Witch Project (production costs 600k/Sales 248 million) was that scary. It did however introduce the idea that a camcorder could add an element to the movie experience and gave us a new POV on horror films..and brought back the “found footage” phenomenon. Paranormal Activity (production cost 15K/sales 197 million), Quarantine (12 million/41 million) and Cloverfield are some fine examples of how filming can make for an interesting viewing experience. Cloverfield was of course a higher cost JJ Abrams film that fits here as well as in number 10.
9. It’s all in the angle
Sam Raimi cut his teeth so to speak on the Evil Dead (production cost 350K/Sales 30 million) and while he went on to do higher productions like The Grudge and Spiderman this 1981 film changed the way horror scenes were filmed. Things like the rapid dolly shot, following a moving object in first person, the close up wide angle view are just a few of Raimi’s hallmarks (although the concepts are borrowed). And I can’t recall a previous horror movie where the audience is actually treated to a vine rape scene (Raimi later stated he wished he had cut the scene). Since gaining a cult following this film has inspired many horror film makers to borrow his filming techniques. I for one can not wait for the 2013 remake of this little gem.
10. Oh goody the monsters are back!
Inundated with monsters from the 50’s and 60’s North American audiences grew tired of them. Psychos with knives and devil possessed people were just a hell of a lot scarier than an over-sized lizard…until 1979. Alien (production cost 9 million/sales 204 million) reintroduced the “monster” in a way we hadn’t seen in a very long time. Films like The Thing, Relic, Species, Splice, Cloverfield, all probably owe their budgets to the success of Alien…which owes its budget to the success of Star Wars (production cost 11 million/Sales 800 million). Dan O’Bannon who wrote the script wanted it to be “Jaws in Space” and he admittedly states he took the idea from a bunch of early films. One of the most interesting of watershed ideas in the film is the treatment of men as the “rape victims.” Horror films have always traded on scenes of women being raped but here is the first time a guy is getting something jammed down his throat and having a baby (yes I know that’s not how impregnation works wise ass). Alien not only resurrected the monster movie, but it brought together so many horror concepts (stalking, monsters, sexual force, face hug, chest explosion, dripping slime, spooked cats) that it’s probably one of the best “one stop shops” for your horror needs.